In 2005, Chloe Charles made a decision that most young musicians—barely out of high school—would never consider making, she decided to walk away from a jazz album she had completed production on. Some said she was crazy. But Charles had a good reason for her decision, she didn’t recognize the girl on the album.
“We finished the album [entitled, Can You Hear Me?] and I would listen to it and think, ‘This isn’t me.’ I would not say these things. And I would not sing it like this,” she explains from her Toronto apartment, days before going on tour in Europe. “I have a difficult time being inauthentic. I have a lot of respect for those who focus solely on singing but that’s not me. I’m all of it. I want to be inside every little piece of it.”
Years later, Charles has no regrets. In fact she believes it was crucial to her growth as an artist (and may be the inspiration behind her introspective song ‘Find Her Way’). “Today, I can pretty much take anything and sing it. But I needed to get comfortable with my own sound before I took on someone else’s.”
After shelving the album, Charles set on a path of artistic discovery. One day, in 2007, she picked up a classical guitar and over the next few months taught herself how to play. “I felt like I already knew how to play it, I just had to remember. It was strange,” she recalls of that time. Soon after she found herself immersed in songwriting.
“It was incredible. All of a sudden I could put my thoughts and ideas to music and I didn’t need to rely on other people. I experimented. I spent time finding my way on the guitar, playing with it and playing with harmonies. It was a ball.”
Things were beginning to fall into place. And it all felt serendipitous.
An only child born to a Canadian mother and Trinidadian father, Charles was raised by her mother in Toronto. (Her father later married Cynthia Lennon, John Lennon’s first wife and mother of Julian Lennon). At 7-years-old Charles and her mother moved from Toronto to Uxbridge, Ontario, where her grandparents resided. “My mom was working her ass off [in Toronto] and I was having little temper tantrums because I didn’t like that very much. My grandpa told her, ‘Hey, why don’t you come live out here?’ And my mom was like. ‘Okay!’ And that was it.”
The move was life changing. The idyllic environment, they lived in a forest outside of town, opened Charles up in ways the city may never have. “You can find yourself in nature. It’s so peaceful. The creative juices really flow when you don’t have cars and noise around you all the time. I felt like I knew every tree in that space.” says Charles, reminiscing about those early days spent exploring everything around her. Charles credits Mother Nature for influencing the kind of music and sounds she’s attracted to today. (She aptly titled her 2010 EP, Little Green Bud.) “I think my music has a lot of atmosphere and I feel like I’m sort of honing that feeling, connecting with nature, with everything.”
Being surrounded by an artistically robust family also shaped Charles as a child. While Charles would go on to become the first member of her family to make a career out of music, the family is filled with painters and artists of all kinds.
“My Nana plays piano and she would play these very dramatic romantic songs,” shares Charles, recalling the impromptu shows her Nana was inclined to perform. “I can just remember her playing them in the middle of the night and waking me up,” she recalls, breaking out into hearty laughter.
Charles’s mother was a songwriter as well, and often played classical guitar with her sister [Chloe’s Aunt]. “They would write these really beautiful songs and play them at every family party so I learned all of those songs. But they were closet musicians. My mom is not the type of person to want to perform in front of a lot of people. She was very shy. I don’t think she even considered taking it to the next level.”
But, inadvertently, Charles’s mother prepared her daughter to take it to the next level by exposing Charles to wildly different musical influences.
“We listened to everything when I was a kid. My mom would blast Enya and Etta James, then Ladysmith Black Mambazo. A lot of operas. Madame Butterfly. Puccini. Just a huge range. It was fun. It was cool.”
These wide-ranging influences seeped deeply into Charles’s vision of music, later informing and shaping her own unique sound.
In 2010, Charles was ready to introduce her music to the world. Finding Canada a difficult place to make a living as a budding performer, she headed to Europe to make a name for herself.
“My dad was living in Spain and I fell in love with Germany, so I had spent a lot of time in Europe over the years. When I decided to make music my career, I was touring a little bit in Canada but it was really difficult. The distances are so wide and people don’t really pay you when you’re first starting out, so I started booking shows in Europe.” It was a strategic move that paid off quickly. “They pay!” she says with a laugh. “As an unknown artist I could make money. The distances are so short. And they were really really receptive to my music.”
The reception to her music grew and along with it has come a loyal fanbase in cities all over North America and Europe. Charles embraces the experience of making international music, exemplified by her twitter profile that reads: Making musical insanity in Toronto, Berlin, Milan, Zurich, London or wherever the wind blows.
Charles’s full-length album Break the Balance, debuted earlier this year. It is an endlessly listenable mix of folk-pop quirkiness. Moving from sweet introspection —‘Find her Way’ to sassy ‘Business’ — Charles creates a sound that is inimitable without being inaccessible. Not surprisingly, inimitable but accessible (sometimes) Icelandic singer-songwriter Björk, serves as a particularly important inspiration to Charles’s.
“Björk has always been herself. She’s dabbled in different arts not just music. She’s in film, and the visual aspect of her music is very important to her. In the past, I felt pressure to just do music but I would like to expand. I really appreciate that Björk is doing whatever she wants and people listen.”
Like Björk, Charles’s has discovered that her greatest strength as an artist comes when she embraces all of herself, strangeness and all.
“I’ve always been very extreme. As a child I was either very bubbly or happy or completely depressed. That has often showed up in my music. In anything I do I’m very split. I’m a Gemini and my mom always says, ‘You’re a perfect Gemini,’” says Charles with a knowing chuckle.
This innate duality served as the inspiration behind her striking cover photo for Break the Balance. “There’s always this struggle to be one thing or another and sticking with it, at least career wise. But for me that image was about accepting [dichotomy] and appreciating it. It’s funny because a lot of people think its referencing the fact that I’m half black and half white but it really has nothing to do with it.”
For anyone familiar with Charles’s music, this year’s Canadian Music Week felt like a major turning point. Charles’s name was buzzing all over town. The Globe and Mail featured a glowing Charles beside the headline, “Meet Chloe Charles, Toronto’s next big singer-songwriter.” Her showcase – later that week – in the upstairs room of El Mocambo, was jam packed – audience members moved their chairs inches from the front of the stage, while a standing crowd filled the room behind them. Among the crowd were more cameras and journalist than most artists had seen all week. You could feel the anticipation in the air.
Prior to taking the stage Charles practiced with her cellist and violinist in the washroom, smiling warmly to women who came in and out. She showed no signs of nerves as she took the stage, but later she shared with me that she had been so preoccupied with waiting for her guitarist and drummer to arrive, they were stuck in traffic, that she didn’t realize the size of the crowd, even as she went through sound check. “All of a sudden we’re all on stage and everything worked out and everyone was there and I looked into the crowd and was like, ‘Wow! It’s full!’”
That night she went on to put on an engaging show, revealing a coquettish elegant stage presence that is as unique as her music. (She has a lovely – and odd – way of moving her legs while she performs that can be roughly described as legs moving like waves as her feet alternately lift off the ground in the gentle trotting gait of prancing mare.)
Between songs Charles referenced words of wisdom spoken by her “existentialist mother,” and then dedicated the Carole King song ‘So Far Away,’ to her father who had recently passed away. It was a poignant moment that made the crowded room feel united in their admiration for her graceful tribute in the face of such a recent loss.
“It was really kind of comforting to me to sing for my father. It felt like something I could do for him. In a way it’s a little cathartic because he loved the night life – he was in the night club business and that was his love. Seeing me on stage was something he absolutely loved but couldn’t do very often. He was always waiting for me to be a star.”
By the reaction of the audience at the end of her performance, uproarious applause accompanied by hoots n’ hollers, the Globe & Mail may have hit it on the nail, and her father’s wish may be finally coming true.
Chloe Charles is currently on tour.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Chaka V. is a writer, journalist and the founder of The Winehouse Mag.
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